Emotions ran high Friday evening after the Skagway Panthers defeated the Yakutat Eagles 46-37 in a physical slugfest to win the Region V 2A girls' basketball tournament at Juneau-Douglas High School.
Skagway continued their undefeated season after upending Yakutat. The Panthers extended their record to 27-0 on the season.
"It's been a few years and these girls have really worked hard. It feels great," Skagway coach Lara Labesky said."We have to go to state now and prove ourselves again. We did pretty well there last year and kind of took everyone by surprise.
"So now we're going to go up there and prove to everyone that we belonged where we were last year."
The Panthers feature an up-tempo, attacking offense with a high-pressure, man-to-man defense that forces a lot of turnovers. With the speed Skagway possesses, its style of play has caused a lot of trouble for opponents this season. Yakutat was the most recent victim.
"We went up to Yakutat and beat them three times on their home court earlier this season, and no one has done that in four or five years," Labesky said. "We went 24-0 in the regular season and now we're 27-0, so this just ices the cake. You don't want to be like the Patriots and go undefeated and then lose in the Super Bowl.
The victory is all that much more impressive when you factor in the Eagles' recent success. Yakutat is the three-time defending state champion and four-time defending Region V champion.
"We have a small bench and some young girls, and we just have to play a different type of basketball than most squads. We're just too small," Yakutat coach Charles Russell said. "But they're coming along. Their game is getting smarter and they're playing a lot better.
"We've seen a lot of the state contenders and getting to see that type of basketball all over the state - we know what's going to happen, we just want to get there and participate in it, and I think we have a good shot at it."
Russell also was complimentary of Skagway's team. He said the progress they've made is impressive and he expects them to be a force at state.
"Skagway has come a long way. They have some really talented girls and they have a deeper bench than we do, and the coaches utilize that really well. We had to work on our time outs to get our rest," he said. "We had to change our game plan a little bit and go to a zone on defense to get some rest.
"They shot the lights out tonight and they deserve it," Russell continued. "They've been looking forward to beating Yakutat for a while now. Hats off to them."
As the teary-eyed Panthers cut down the net after their victory, Labesky summed up the overall feeling.
"It really validates what we've done all season," she said.
Junior guard Jesse Ellis led all scorers with 21 points for Skagway, while Yakutat sophomore guard Tina Esbenshade pitched in 17 points to lead her team in scoring.
Matthew Tynan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Klawock boys cruise by Skagway
Klawock exploded out of the gate with an 18-0 lead Friday before cruising to a 70-50 Region V 2A boys' basketball championship-game win at Juneau-Douglas High School.
Junior Dante' Huffine buried a triple to start the barrage before Paul Busse scored inside. Huffine stuck another 3-pointer and Rick Carle got a deuce inside after back-to-back Panther turnovers for a 10-0 lead.
"We came out ready to play, we wanted this win and we got it," said the junior transfer Huffine, who led all scorers with 23 points. "This is my first region championship ever personally. I transferred from Craig and it was the right choice. This team is just awesome.
"We played with the best intensity I've ever seen us play with, and we were here to win."
Kyle Packer went coast-to-coast for a lay-up before Skagway finally got on the board at the 3:10 mark on a Quinn Weber baseline jumper. The Panthers closed with a 4-0 spurt on two Mickey Wilson free throws and a Logan Weber steal and lay-up to cut the deficit to 20-6 heading into the second quarter.
The Chieftans opened the second quarter with a 12-2 run to blow the game open, 32-8, with nine of the points coming off Skagway turnovers.
"Defense wins championships," Klawock coach James Carle said. "We implanted that philosophy this year, and we had a bunch of young kids that came out and played excellent. The leadership by Deion Jackson, Rick Carle and Kyle (Packer), and the addition of my partner Dante' Huffine from Craig has been huge. All my guys work together and they like to be together. I've never been around a team like this. I coached in 3A and won a couple of championships there, but this is a special one."
A Thomas Etue 3-pointer made it 32-14, Klawock, and the Cheiftans closed the half 9-2 for a 41-16 lead at the break.
Skagway committed 20 first-half turnovers, giving away 16 points, and never threatened in the second half, though the score was 52-50 after the initial 18-0 Klawock run.
"We just had a slow start. We lost by 20 and were down 18 to start," Skagway coach Chris Wassman said. "The lid was on it (the basket). We shot the lights out (Thursday) night. What are you going to do? It just wasn't going in and they were hitting everything; their first four or five shots and two of them were threes.
"We were just throwing the ball away. We had one other game where we did that the first quarter, and I didn't expect it to hit us tonight, but it did."
Carle and Packer joined Huffhine in double figures with 15 and 13 points, respectively.
Thomas led Skagway with 15 points, and Wilson had 13.
Hydaburg tops Skagway
With a berth at state on the line, the Hydaburg Warriors pulled out a 41-36 win over a Skagway Panthers team that was hungry for a victory.
The game was a defensive battle with no team ever taking a lead of more than eight points, and the Warriors' toughness prevailed.
With just more than three minutes remaining in the game, Skagway's Mickey Wilson converted on a lay-up plus a foul. His made free throw brought the game to within three points. Wilson fouled out soon thereafter and the Panthers chances left with him as they fell just short of a fourth-quarter comeback.
"We got two quick fouls on Mickey in the first quarter and it's tough to take your top player and give him two early fouls," said Skagway coach Chris Wassman. "But he had a great season and a great high school career."
Wassman also said his team didn't play to the level they had all season.
"We really didn't play up to our tempo and up to our abilities," he said. "But I've got to hand it to Hydaburg, they played a game earlier this morning and they came back and battled it out."
Hydaburg coach John Carle said his young Warriors squad fought through the fatigue on their way to a state berth.
"We came out and played really hard, especially considering we played a game this morning. We knew we had to slow the game down because they were going to be fresher than us and we didn't want to give them a bunch of chances to make effort and hustle plays," he said. "It worked in our advantage to slow it down a little bit today."
Carle said his team, which has no seniors, matured quite a bit through the experience.
"I think the boys learned a lot about themselves. We had to play three games coming through the back door to get to state," he said. "I think they grew a lot because they're a young team. They grew up a lot and learned how to handle the pressure situations down the stretch."
Eagles earn state bid
The three-time defending state champion Yakutat Eagles pulled off an impressive 43-33 victory over the Klawok Chieftans to show why their program belongs in the state title hunt again.
Sophomore guard Tina Esbenshade scored 28 points for the Eagles, who dominated the Chieftans for the first three-plus quarters.
With Yakutat leading Klawok by four at the half, Tina Esbenshade took over the game, outscoring the Chieftans 14-6 by herself in the third quarter.
After the game, she was unaware that she had scored 28 points, which made her team-first mentality evident.
"It's really exciting because state has been our goal all year and we made it, even though it was second place," she said. "We figured out what we need to work on, but we learn from our mistakes and go on from there."
"You don't really want to change much," Yakutat coach Charles Russell said. "What got you here should get you through. If you change it up now you might mess up the chemistry.
"At the beginning of the year you ask the girls, 'Why are you joining basketball?' A lot of girls say because they like to travel and like to be with their friends," he said. "My girls say they are here because they want to go to state. That's their goal and we're there. I'm really proud of the girls."
Klawok coach Julie Horpestad said she was proud of the effort her team gave.
"We have a pretty young team with only three seniors and a lot of freshman, so it's the beginning. We really did peak at the right time with our best games coming in the tournament," she said. "Yakutat is a really tough team that will represent us well at state. But our future looks bright and we're already looking forward to next season."
Senior guard Tess Larson led the way for Klawok with 12 points while freshman Cassie Williams pitched in 11 on the game.